Thursday, 31 March 2011

Superscrimping, with Channel 4’s Waste Not Want Not

And so, last night, pen in hand, I tuned in, ready to find a whole host of tips worthy of Money Saving Madam.
First and foremost I find an impostor: Mrs Moneypenny. Apparently she’s from the Financial Times. With that hat I can’t believe it. Clearly she saves money by stealing her clothes from the Oompa-Loompas.
 10 things I learned from watching Superscrimpers episode one.
1.       New knickers are not expensive. Dying my pants when they are looking ‘used’ will always be a Money-Saving step too far.

2.       You can make a dress solely out of face cloths. It is a triumph of both economy and ingenuity.

3.       Although it is a travesty that 50% of lettuce purchased in the UK goes in the bin, the answer to this problem is that people should admit what they know in their hearts: that they are salad-dodgers and thus require less lettuce. The answer is not reviving mouldy leaves from the bin.

4.       I would also have livestock and be self sufficient if I owned 30 acres of land.

5.       You can make apple wine for 11p a litre. Google research and blog post most likely to follow.

6.       Homemade nettle pasta does not look appetising, even if it is apparently good for water retention.

7.       A brand new Ford is not a crap car to be sniffed at.

8.       You can repair the worn cuff of a jumper by chopping off the top of an old sock and stitching this on. Do not be alarmed, you will not have ruined a good pair of socks. No, with a spot of careful hemming you have created a trendy pair of trainer socks.

9.       Picking up people’s dropped bank statements in the street is no longer shameful nosiness; it is research into the financial state of the nation. (The conclusion was: it is in a state.)

10.   If you’re really broke you can make bath oil using water out the toilet. Or something. I think I misunderstood that one.

So there are 10 things that occurred to me last night.
I already knew that a high percentage of people do not have savings, (this gives me comfort that I am not in a shameful minority) and that I would be annoyed if someone drove my ridiculously expensive 4x4 into my own shed.
I can’t wait for next week’s episode.
Oh, and if anyone has any unwanted face-cloths, mail me.
If you missed the show you can catch it here.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Tune in tonight 8.30pm

Money saving madam will be tuning into SuperScrimpers tonight, 8.30pm, Channel 4, and taking notes.

Although she is not entirely sure she wants to know how to make her pants last longer.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

I like my carrier bags organic.

I didn’t think I was a snob. Well, not really.

But despite supposedly being mid-saving, where did I find myself doing the weekly shop this Saturday? Bloody M&S, that’s where.

So what does my M&S habit reveal about me?
Apparently choice of supermarket has emerged as a clear indication of social standing. And if it doesn't quite capture exactly where you fit in, it does give a hint of what you aspire to be or would like others to think of you. Not that anyone would admit that they had chosen their supermarket for its class status, of course. Goodness no. We shop in more expensive supermarkets due to the superior quality of the food, the exotic vegetables, the prevalence of organic and the commitment to fair-trade. We don’t know why we need purple sprouting broccoli, but we’re sure we do.
I wonder if it’s even about the food? I mean, most items are branded and sell everywhere. Kellogg’s cornflakes are the same from Asda or Waitrose. Perhaps if we’re honest, it’s the ambience and the clean-looking shoppers.
Gosh - in certain middle-class circles mentioning you shop at the T-word is paramount to social suicide. I mean, you might as well confess that you’re holidaying all inclusive in the Costa Brava this summer.
But snobbery aside, of course we can all see what's wrong with supermarkets and colossal chain retailers in general.
There is, in the first place, the revolting wastefulness. Everything comes wrapped in layer after layer of needless plastic and card, served in landfill clogging disposable plastic bags.
Long before it reaches the supermarket, tons and tons of good, nourishing food is bulldozed into the ground because it doesn't meet the aesthetic standards of the supermarkets' buyers. ‘Those tomatoes aren't spherical - sorry, mate. Can't take them.’ And unless it sports a ‘fair-trade’ badge, you can bet your life that someone has been both underpaid and overworked on the other-side of the globe to bring it to our kitchens.
And yet, week in, week out, we go.

But when discussing the evils of supermarkets, we should surely admit what everyone in their secret heart knows: that shopping in big supermarkets is heaven on earth.

Go on, admit it. It’s amazing.

And rightly so, we’re all basically being brainwashed. The supermarkets (yes all of them – even the holy-grail, Waitrose) pay experts to make it a wonderful and wallet emptying experience; social psychologists, branding consultants, and other ‘mystery influencing’ jobs that I’ve never even heard of, all tricking me into parting with my hard earned cash.

They play "buy-me" music and pump the smell of freshly baked bread down the aisles. At every turn you are confronted by stacks of clean, pretty, gift-wrapped goods in hundreds of varieties.

I think I should probably start doing my big shop online. At least that way I will only buy what I need, and not inadvertently pick up a flat-screen monitor or a new work suit. You might laugh, but I have previously purchased both of these items (in the T-word) on a routine milk run. I blame the social psychologists.

I promise to stop shopping in M&S (once the fridge is emptied of course) and head instead to supermarkets that don’t stock pak choi or celeriac. I don’t even know how to cook either of them anyway.

I will buy no-brand white labeled foods, enjoy M&S as a special pay-day treat and end with a joke borrowed from Stephen Fry,

“What is Sainsbury's good for? Keeping the scum out of Waitrose" 

Friday, 18 March 2011

How to get cheap train tickets. (With a quick aside about queuing)

 I hate being ripped off. Don’t we all?  Personally I think it goes against the spirit of Britishness. By this I mean the characteristic that sums us up as a nation, and that is a sense of what is right and fair. This, my lovely readers, is why we love to queue. We do not queue for the sheer pleasure of joining an orderly line. No, we queue because it is right and proper that the first person is served first, and then each in turn in their right and proper sequence.

Queuing: We love it really

Fairness is an underlying theme of British life. We think everyone should be given their fair chance – why else are we so obsessed with the under-dog? Even our speech is littered with phrases proclaiming fairness, ‘to be fair’, ‘in all fairness’, fair enough’, ‘firm but fair’, ‘fair and square’, and my favourite, which must be incredibly confusing to foreigners, ‘that’s not cricket!’

Being ripped off is in direct opposition to fairness, and it is with this that I take umbrage.  And the latest industry that has tried to rip me off, and each day is ripping off the ‘Great and Fair British Public,’ is the train industry.

Train ticket pricing is a farce.

I have long known this but was reminded of it yesterday whilst trying to book a spot of UK train travel. The trip in question is some 6 weeks away, travelling from Colchester to Market Harborough, but of course there was not a single cheap advance ticket left. Boy do those tickets disappear fast. The cheapest fair I could find was £62.

Now the good news is that I can now indulge in another British pass-time, which is proudly boasting about a saving. Shopping is a skill, and I take pride in doing it well, which I understand to mean doing it with a concern for thrift.

Brits would never speak of having spent x on an item, for fear of being vulgar, but would proudly tell of having saved x on it. You are categorically allowed (moreover encouraged) to take pride in finding a bargain.

I got my tickets, for that exact same journey, on the same trains no less, for £22. Ordinarily I would be annoyed about the £1 booking fee included in this price, but for today only, I’m letting it slide.

So how did I do it?

A little known tactic called split fares.

This is a money saving gem, and is how I got my ticket at a £40 reduction. Instead of buying tickets for the whole journey, buying tickets for its constituent parts separately can bizarrely slash the price – even though you're travelling on exactly the same train.

Time commitment is around 10 minutes to search the journeys, but the savings can be vast. This tip comes highly recommended and recently tested by Money Saving Madam.

Of course in the ideal world of money saving, you always know where you’re heading to in plenty of time, so the obvious tip is to plan ahead. But advance tickets soon fly off the shelves on the internet superhighway, so you have to get in quickly after the date of release. To be one step ahead of the game you can sign up for an alert telling you when the cheapy tickets are available for your exact journey. This will put you first in the queue, and is frankly, a wonder. Ticket alert wonder!

Finally, for a train fare that cannot be beaten, and is a frank ‘two fingers’ to the industry, you should always check if Megatrain serves the route you are travelling. This is the poundland of train tickets, but the good news is that there is nothing produced in China or made of polyester here. This company sells off tickets on regular trains (Virgin/Stagecoach) at a fraction of the normal price. Fares range from 50p to around £7, and recently they had a sale where fares were free with just the booking fee of 50p to pay.

As someone who has purchased a £5 return on a journey that has previously cost me £106, it certainly gives you a warm feeling of smug saving satisfaction.

So, thus endeth today’s lesson.

I will continue congratulating myself on my bargain tickets and try to use the phrase ‘that's not cricket’ at least 3 times in conversation today.

And you? Well you should go forth, save on train travel, and remember – whatever price you pay, you should, if possible, claim that it somehow constituted a saving.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Luck be a lady tonight

I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it with my own eyes and I bloomin’ loved it.

I have just returned from a weekend in a luxury Highlands lodge, complete with a footstool the size of my lounge, a stag mounted above a roaring fire and not an item of IKEA furniture in sight.  For the first hour or two I felt like an imposter who might be asked to leave at any moment. But I was there and saw it for myself - how the other half live.

It was the height of luxury. Built dramatically overlooking its own loch (or, strictly, a fully public loch), the lodge boasted six large en suite bedrooms (each with very high thread count White Company linen) and - to the delight of us all - an outdoor hot-tub the size of a small car. (I couldn't help thinking of the poor architect who had conceived this fabulously romantic set-up as we necked Tesco’s finest beers by the gallon from within it.)  

Frankly the only thing that was missing was our very own butler. Now I am not wildly experienced in the management of man-servants, but I am certainly a fast learner. Within a short time I am quite sure that I could have been casually asking him to unpack the suitcases and ensure that the Merlot was decanted for supper.

The shocking thing is how quickly you can get used to a preposterous level of luxury - and just how enjoyable it is. Money can't make you happy, they say, but lounging with a Shiraz (the butler said the 98 Merlot was piss – a bad year apparently) on a giant plush footstool, watching the roaring fire, overlooking snow capped mountains, before heading to my luxurious 6ft bath and White Company sheets, you do have to wonder.

But this was a fleeting foray into the life of those who own tweed non-ironically, despise fashion-wellies and deny watching reality TV.

Readers do not despair; I have not lost leave of my senses, thrown caution to the wind and maxed out the credit card with this luxurious escape. I did not pay for this trip. No, even more shocking than all of that, I won it.

Yes, I am now ‘one of those people’ that nobody believes exists. One of those lucky ones. A surprising number of people have responded to this prize-news in utter dismay. ‘They would never even bother entering,’ they tell me, so impossible would a win be. They just aren’t that lucky. Personally I think it would take some serious levels of luck to win a competition that you hadn't even entered, but that's just me.

This all got me thinking about the science of luck.

Are you lucky or unlucky? Why do some people always seem to be in the right place at the right time, whilst others attract only bad fortune? Why are my friends so convinced that I am ‘lucky’ just because my name came out of hat?

For this, I turn to my friend (well a researcher whom I admire) named Professor Wiseman. (No pun intended.) Richard Wiseman has spent 10 years researching the lives of the lucky and the unlucky and notes that ‘the lives of the lucky and unlucky are as consistent as they are remarkable. Lucky people always seem to be in the right place at the right time, fall on their feet, and appear to have an uncanny ability to live a charmed life. Unlucky people are the exact opposite.’

He designed a series of studies to investigate if good and bad fortune really was predetermined, or if psychology could account for these dramatically different lives. In one memorable study, he gave the volunteers a newspaper and asked them to look inside it and tell him how many photographs were printed within the pages. What he didn’t mention was that halfway through the paper was an unexpected opportunity. This ‘opportunity’ took up half a page and announced in huge type, ‘Win £100 by telling the experimenter you have seen this.’

People who had previously described themselves as ‘unlucky’ tended to be so focused on the task at hand, the counting of the photographs, that they failed to notice the ad. In contrast, the lucky people were more relaxed, saw the bigger picture, and so spotted a chance to win £100. In this simple experiment Wiseman demonstrated how lucky people can create their good fortune by being more able to make the most of an unexpected opportunity.

Would you spot the ad? Enter the competition? See the opportunity?

Be optimistic, energetic and open to new experiences. You never know, your name might just come out the hat.

Of course I should add that I’m not that lucky. My lottery numbers haven’t come off quite yet, but there’s still time for me and my own lodge. For now I’ll just head back down to steerage and will have to accept that the problem with luckily winning luxurious breaks – is that it makes real life that bit bloomin’ harder.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

It rhymes with camping and it's overpriced

The year is rolling by, and whilst my friends plan to jet off around the globe this summer, it has dawned on me that I simply cannot afford a holiday.

Well, I could afford it, but I surely can’t justify it. Two weeks in the sun is going to have to fall by the wayside if money-saving-madam is going to stand any sort of chance.

Or is it?

Perhaps I could just about get away with a budget holiday.

A quick Google is enough to discover that The Telegraph and The Guardian’s idea of a ‘budget holiday’ is sadly no longer mine.

The Sun is offering ‘holidays for £9’ but my problem with this is twofold.

Firstly, partaking in this offer means purchasing the Sun 10 times. I don’t like the Sun. This is nothing to do with snobbery. It pretends to be the voice of working class people but instead has a tendency to focus on the worst aspects of humanity; and as such will not be receiving my hard-ish earned £3.

Secondly, and more embarrassingly, I have experience of these £9 holidays from the heady days of having no money. The resulting ‘Caravan of no comfort’ holiday was a challenge to say the least. No seating or bed area was quite large or soft enough to be comfortable, and the fibreglass roof provided a constant reminder that it was raining solidly for 5 days. In fact, so much did it rain, that when the day finally came to leave, we were flooded in.

Frankly, if it hadn’t been for the on-site ‘Cabaret’ club, featuring failed red-coats, bingo and adult humour for a family audience, I would have thought it was £9 poorly spent.

Even under the guise of research I’d rather not go through it again. Not even Louis Theroux would put up with that.

So if it seems a £9 holiday ain’t gonna cut it, how about a free one?

Remember Mr Smith, the British freelance writer, who came up with the idea to tweet his way around the globe for free?

He decided he wanted to try to get to Campbell Island, 200 miles off New Zealand's coast, within 30 days. He posted his aims on Twitter 28 days before he wanted to leave but, at first, there was little interest. That changed when Stephen Fry found out about him and mentioned Mr Smith to his many followers.

But that option is out of the question. It’s hardly novel anymore, and besides, I can’t tweet.

Back to the drawing board – 'what about camping?' I hear you cry.

Apparently growing numbers are rejecting traditional holidays to head out on their own for a spot of wild camping for a truly peaceful (and free) escape.

Personally I think they’re mad. I have an aversion to camping. It's a knee-jerk reaction at a genetic level. All I can imagine is a cataclysm of tent-based horrors, from falling into toilets to watching a caravan slowly slipping off the edge of a cliff. I think the whole thing is asking for trouble.

For me, camping is one the Seven Circles of hell, an experience so entrenched in misery that the thought of doing that as my holiday brings me out in a rash.

Turns out that I care about having a bed with a quality mattress, am rapidly turning into someone who gets irritable without eight uninterrupted hours of sleep, and am not terribly interested in shared bathrooms, crumbling bathrooms, leaking bathrooms, leaking bathrooms with low water pressure, tiny bathrooms, or cold-water-only-bathrooms.

Friends, now mostly professionals in their late 20s and 30s and used to a certain level of luxury, (or at least a minimum thread count) are concerned what my ‘Budget-Holiday’ might look like, and think that youth hostels, coach-travel, tents and cold water showers are a special form of torture.

But I think I’ve found the answer: luxury camping. This encompasses two words that are pleasing to me.  

Luxury; meaning  something inessential but conducive to pleasure and comfort. Something expensive or hard to obtain. Sumptuous living.’

And camping; meaning ‘Rachel can afford this on her year of no spending.’

Apparently this high-end version of camping is called Glamping. This branding suggests it is both glamourous and frugal. Frugality, apparently, got fashionable. Ok, here we go. Cuckoo Down Farm Yurts, this looks nice. A three-acre wood, rabbits, deer and swallows. Peace, quiet, campfires. Oooh - own loo, double bed, and, there, the deal-maker, a powerpoint. Phone charging and ghd use a go-go. How do I book?

What? It costs how much? I could stay in a hotel cheaper.

Ah well, I should have known. After all, it was featured in The Telegraph.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

A spot of stolen Sunday wisdom

Writing today’s post hurts. I don’t want to admit what’s happened to me. It seems so silly because this occurs to most of us eventually.
Ok, here it is (deep breath): I found my first grey hair. The horror.
Now, in these recessionary times you’re probably saying what’s the big deal about one grey hair..? Aren’t I lucky I have hair at all?
But when you’re a child, dreaming about all the ‘firsts’ in your future (first kiss, first love, first drink, first time you shave your legs), your first grey hair is not something you lie awake imagining. When the day came, there was just me, the mirror, and a bastardly grey strand protruding mockingly from my scalp.
Besides, I simply cannot afford the cost of root maintenance. 
What did I do about that hair? No, I did not pull the coarse intruder out from the roots or dye it. The hairdresser told me it was unwise to pluck it out, although google research has since revealed that it is a myth that if you pluck out grey hair then two will grow back in its place. They don’t sprout to seek revenge for the execution of their follicular comrades. 
This all got me thinking. It used to be common thought that grey hair was associated with wisdom. Perhaps this is it; perhaps now that I am old and grey I am thus wise, sage and mellow. Perhaps now I understand just what matters in life.
Of course this is nonsense.
One of my favourite writers is Nora Ephron. Funny, unable to write a boring sentence, and wise; I thought that to mark the occasion of my first grey hair it would be ‘wise’ to steal some of her actual wisdom, and share it with you all.

From Nora Ephron’s essay, What I wish I’d known.
'People have only one way to be.
Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.
You never know.
The plane is not going to crash.
Anything you think is wrong with your body at thirty-five you will be nostalgic for at the age of forty-five.
Write everything down.
Take more pictures.
You can order more than one dessert.
If the shoe doesn’t fit in the store, it’s never going to fit.
Whenever someone says the words ‘Our friendship is more important than this,’ watch out, because it almost never is.
If only one third of your clothes are mistakes, you’re ahead of the game.
There are no secrets.'
Thanks Nora. Unfortunately she doesn't have any insight into the grey matter. So I shall be wise and decide that at 27 it’s way too early for acceptance. Instead, I shall just move my fringe over a little on the other side and pretend the grey hair – that little bugger! – isn’t there.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Who on earth pays full price at Pizza Express?

Coupons are cool. Or at least that’s what I'm telling myself.
I had long embraced a ‘voucher’ even before the imposed ‘Saving Regime,’ but a pleasant side effect of the present economic climate is the increase of them. Thank you very much recession.
Do you remember going to Pizza Express without a voucher? No, me neither. But apparently it did happen in the dim and distant past. Probably just before the time people started incessantly saying that they ‘had an app for that.’
When Pizza Express approached a British marketing agency several years ago, they had just a few sacks of postbags with customer contact details on them.
By sending out some forward-able two-for-one vouchers that could be downloaded from the firm's website they attracted over 4.5 million diners (plus a database of 3m customers' details) keen to take them up on the offer.
With the economy slowing and unemployment soaring, it seems consumers are looking for ways to pinch pennies anywhere they can. Although this would suggest that they want to have their pizza and eat it.
Needless to say, other restaurant chains soon caught onto this idea. If any of this is news to you then sign up immediately at for a weekly email of the best deals online and in stores. Click through, do it now. I don’t get any kick backs; although if vouchercodes would like to give me any, I accept cash or cheque.
When you book car hire, theatre tickets, flights, do your grocery shopping, or anything else online, you usually see a little box giving the option to input a loyalty, membership or special offer code. It's all too easy to ignore, but don't - typing the correct few letters can give a significant discount on the subsequent price. Thankfully, you don't need to actually be a loyal customer; you just need to google it. Open a new window right there and search for ‘discount code for ‘insert website here.’
There’s a widespread belief among the non-coupon set that ‘only poor people use coupons.’ Of course this is ridiculous, although some people are genuinely afraid of a stigma, as old fashioned paper coupons were once viewed as an embarrassing badge of stinginess.
Perhaps there is still a stigma surrounding these coupons saving you 20p off your milk or offering half price detergent; but new technologies like online voucher codes and club cards with automatic savings have pushed discounts into the mainstream.
Nowadays you just have to flash your phone screen to a staff member to get your money off. No ‘paper-coupon-possible-stigma’ in sight. Apparently, mobile coupons remove the stigma of discounting because your discount vouchers - delivered via sleek and expensive smartphones - are sexy and novel.
Frankly a discount is a discount, but if you would rather partake in ‘sexy and novel’ saving, then Vouchercloud is one such miracle saving app that will automatically find the best deals nearest to you and deliver a coupon straight to your ‘sleek’ (or otherwise) smartphone.
So be out and proud, become a coupon enthusiast. The real question is why you wouldn’t want to? Surely all it means is that you are a savvy shopper who knows the way to get the very best prices for the products you buy.
Sorry, backtrack - did I just say that there was an app for that?

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

And the winner is... An Inspirational Interlude.

Amongst the tales of teary speeches, Chanel dresses and after show parties, one story from this Oscar season rather caught my attention.

That of Tom Hooper.

In 1997 Tom Hooper was directing a UK children’s drama called Byker Grove. Yesterday he woke up as an Academy Award winner as Best Director for The Kings Speech.

I wonder whether when he was working with Ant and Dec in Newcastle's East End he thought he'd go on to win an Oscar for his work?

Tom knew he wanted to be a director from the age of 12.

His first TV series was cancelled, he didn't give up. 

Byker Grove was described by some of his peers as 'not real work'; he didn't give up.

The Kings Speech was off and on for years before it was made, he didn't give up.

My Granny has this very poster proudly displayed in her kitchen. She is 84 and going strong.  

I remember the first time I noticed the additional character in this drawing. I wondered how I had missed it so many times before.

Perhaps we could all do with following the motto of Tom Hooper, and this here frog, a little more rigorously.